In case you may have missed it, unrest engulfed the UC-Berkeley campus last night. In opposition to a scheduled speech by alt-right commentator/media personality Milo Yiannopolous, many of the protesters turned violent. In response to the violence and rioting, the university administration canceled Milo’s speech.
While last night’s events can spark discussion in a myriad of different directions, I would like to focus on what those events tell us about free speech, the importance of narratives, and oppositional strategy in the Trump era.
1. The reactions to the unrest and eventual cancellation of the speech on multiple sides of the social media political spectrum were quite predictable. The alt-right reacted predictably by condemning the events as simply another example of the noxious attitude toward free speech and general propensity for violence among leftists. Liberals reacted by defending Milo’s right to speak freely, though vehemently disagreed with his viewpoints. Leftists reacted by defending the actions of the protesters, painting the violence as merely reacting to the violence perpetrated by Milo’s ugly, bigoted ideology. While each reaction may be valid, they are all relatively simplistic narratives.
2. Strictly and legally speaking, Milo’s rights to free speech was not curtailed. Given that the First Amendment applies only to infringements on free speech by the state, this is certainly true. Yet, in the abstract and philosophical concept of free speech, protests that become violent and aggressive to the point that a speaker is unable to engage in political speech is functionally an infringement upon free speech.
In an era and an environment around the globe (from the US to Europe to Turkey) where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are witnessing tremendous assaults and challenges, it is crucial that the Left not abandon a commitment to free speech and press. The real threats to those freedoms comes not from the so-called “regressive left” (which wields little political power) but from right wing regressives — particularly, right wing populism in the West and Islamism in Turkey and MENA.
In the US alone there are countless threats to free speech from the state, such as the Trump administration’s hostility toward the press, efforts to delegitimize nonviolent protest and recent moves to stifle pro-Palestinian activism and the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. Furthermore, expect the administration to oversee a further expansion of the surveillance state, in addition to a broader crackdown on Black Lives Matter and Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.
In these trying times, it is for the long-term survival of free speech and the independence of the press that liberals, progressives and leftists are truly the defenders of those critical human values. It is beyond clear that the alt-right and others on the Right pay lip service to those freedoms merely to distract the broader society of the right wing regressive threats to those values. Many in the alt-right movement have a very particular strategy to play up viral examples of left-wing violence and other misbehavior to paint themselves as the true heirs of free speech and the First Amendment. Though I myself am skeptical of the widespread power and influence of the “regressive left”, the movement among certain segments of the Left toward regressivism must be scrutinized and called out.
3. Politics, while above all being a battle for material resources, is equally a contest of competing narratives. It is difficult to see how the anti-Milo demonstrators conceivably emerged victorious in the narrative war. In many ways, Milo is primarily a troll and provocateur that seeks to push the opposition to him toward the most extreme methods— in this case, violence. The protesters were successful in the sense that Milo’s speech was actually canceled though they ultimately handed Milo and his alt-right allies a narrative victory.
It serves as a narrative victory for the alt-right and Trump supporters in that it effectively allows them to paint the Left and the broader anti-Trump opposition movement as riddled with violent, left-wing radicals. That belief, in turn, delegitimizes any meaningful opposition and criticism about Trump — an attitude fundamentally corrosive to democracy. In reality, those engaging in violence last night represent the tiniest sliver of the Left (not a homogenous group). Those violence protesters don’t represent the Left any more than Black Bloc anarchists that conveniently show up at every left-wing protest.
Narratives are largely how the apolitical mass of Americans formulate opinions on substantive political issues, especially protest movements. For the average American watching CNN or checking Twitter, especially those Americans willing to “give Trump a chance”, it is impossible not to see how those individuals will be turned off by such a display. The existence of such a narrative, even if oversimplified and untrue, is undoubtedly difficult to counter and gets in the way of the true art of politics — winning converts as a means to take power and deliver tangible policy results.
4. The anti-Milo protests at Berkeley can and should be thought as essentially as a proxy for the anti-Trump movement. In this lens, it is important to judge the tactics displayed at UC Berkeley not only in their efficacy but more so in how they compare to methods employed in other anti-Trump protests since January 20. The women’s marches and the airport demonstrations in response to Trump’s Executive Order on immigration and refugees were powerful and effective in illustrating their ability to show the potential political power of a unified, energetic progressive movement., Those specific protests were affected largely because they were not simply anti-Trump; instead, themes of immigrant rights, reproductive rights and climate justice, among others, were plentiful.
As noxious as Milo’s views certainly are, I fail to see the point of the protesters. While the protesters at Berkeley are ostensibly anti-racist and anti-Trump, discerning their larger theme was considerably more difficult than for the Women’s March and the airport demonstrations. The protests and eventual violence in Berkeley were, in my mind, motivated as much by antipathy toward Milo as toward his ideology. Yesterday’s violent display illustrates the futility and counterproductivity of performative protesting (and eventually rioting) by certain leftists and anti-fascists without any real demands beyond an opportunity to cause trouble and to intentionally antagonize anybody outside the group. The movement against Trump and his ideology (of which I vehemently oppose) must be strategic and based on themes that go beyond simply being anti-Trump. I failed to see that last night. While it is important not to assume that the protesters and rioters represent the mass of those opposed to Trump, such displays should be roundly criticized as undemocratic and counterproductive. I am also not one to condemn any and all riots as counterproductive as in some cases rioting is a legitimate reaction by marginalized and ignored populations, though it is not the case in Berkeley by any stretch.
The recent protests in opposition to Trump and his agenda have been incredibly galvanizing for the left and illustrate an incredibly exciting opportunity to manifest that opposition into political victories and to rebuild the Democratic Party.
While the left should not consume itself with spending energy to condemn the events in Berkeley, it is instructive that progressives, liberals and leftists view the events in Berkeley as wholly unproductive and the opposite of a model of opposition to Trump.